Saturday, April 30, 2011

History's View of Single Ministers

Today, in churches and in missions organizations there are many unmarried people serving in ministry positions of leadership. These follow in the footsteps of Jeremiah, Nehemiah, Apostle Paul, John the Baptist or more recent examples such as Lottie Moon, Amy Carmichael, Trevor Douglas, David Brainerd, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or John Stott.

In Albert Hsu’s book, “Singles at the Crossroads,” he writes of how the historical Christian perspective of singleness has seemed to swing between extremes.

In the Jewish culture of New Testament times marriage was regarded at such a high level of importance, that if an adult was single it was almost as if they were disregarded by the society. To be married and to have children was the norm for all Jews, including religious leaders.  A religious leader without a family was unimaginable.

Hsu goes on to explain how the New Testament church, following the writings and example of Jesus Christ (Matt. 19:11-12) and the Apostle Paul (1 Cor.7), brought singleness to the same level as marriage. Both were considered gifts from God.( 1 Cor. 7:7)During this time of balanced perspective the early church went ahead to become the predominant faith of the Roman Empire.

In the following years the church would move towards the other extreme. The prevalent belief became that anything associated with the flesh was sinful and that only things pertaining to the spirit were good. To serve God the desires of the flesh, including the sexual intimacy of marriage, needed to be set aside. The unhindered life of singleness became a sign of those who were truly pious. This thinking took the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 to an extreme. Instead of seeing singleness as “a“ way to serve God, it became seen as “the” way to serve God. This was most evident in the Roman Catholic Church’s mandatory celibacy of nuns, monks, and priests.

In 1517, Martin Luther, a Catholic priest, nailed his 95 Thesis to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. These were his 95 “grievances” he had against the Roman Catholic Church as he compared it to the truths of scripture. This began what would come to be known in church history as the Reformation. Luther had been a Catholic priest, committed to celibacy as a sign of his devotion to God. Eventually Luther would completely separate from the Catholic Church, revoke his vow of celibacy, and marry Katherina von Bora. Because Luther’s key role in the Reformation this began a swing back towards the belief that the clergy should be married. The Protestants, in the centuries to come, would follow Luther’s lead.

Today’s evangelicals have continued this trend of married clergy. Historically the majority of those in leadership in Evangelical, Protestant churches and organizations have been married. Because of this there are many materials written to help those who are married and in ministry, but limited resources available to specifically help those who are single and in ministry. This is evident when looking through Christian libraries, bookstores, or catalogs. There will be many materials about family and marriage, and usually a very limited amount of resources concerning the lives of singles. Following this trend there are a good number of materials available to assist those who are married in ministry, but hardly anything available for those who are single in ministry. This seems to be ignoring the data.

According to U.S. census data the number of singles in the United States who are 18 and older is approaching 100 million, and 44% of those over 20 years of age are single. There are different cultural reasons for this but the number of singles going into ministry seem to mirror this trend.

ATS, the Association of Theological Schools, is the largest accreditation organization for theological schools in North America. When looking at their data from graduate surveys in 2009-2010, 39% of the graduates who are leaving seminary and beginning ministry are single. 158 schools and 5,699 students were included in the ATS Student Information Project.

The data from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, one of the largest seminaries in the world, says the same.  It’s data since 2005 shows the numbers of single graduates at 37% to 40% during those years.

These numbers are not an exact indicator of the percentage of ministers and missionaries who remain single throughout their ministry, but they do show that there is a sizeable number of single ministers who could use resources to help them better navigate the unique challenges that face them. Whether they are becoming missionaries, youth ministers, children’s ministers, military chaplains, pastors, or another of many ministry possibilities, there is a need for more resources for singles who are in ministry.

[1] Albert YHsu, Singles at the Crossroads, A Fresh Perspective on Christian Singleness (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1997).
[2] U.s. Census Bureau, 2009, 2009, "Data Set: 2007-2009 American Community Survey 3-year Estimates," (accessed Feb.28,2011).
[3] ATS - Association Of Theological Schools, 2010, "ATS - Graduating Student Questionnaire - Table 1: Percent Of Enrollment By Degree Program, Marital Status, And Gender," (accessed February 28, 2011).
[4] Registrar Mark Leeds -Associate Vice President for Institutional Research and assessment and Assistant Professor of Theology, interview by author, June 8, 2010, transcript, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas.


  1. Thank you so much for writing this. I am a single adult ministering to singles in a church. I'm always looking for resources but they seem few and far between.

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